I’ve talked to a few historians recently about their experiences sitting on juries. Both mentioned their desire, during the trial, to ask questions. Both seemed happy to do their civic duty, but unhappy that they had to make a decision about someone’s life without the benefit of greater context. After the trial, they had difficulty walking away – not because they wanted to know “what really happened,” but because they sensed how much the legal proceeding obscured.
Michael Katz actually did what every historian-juror has probably wanted to do: he followed up. After serving as juror number three in a murder trial in Philadelphia, he mined tax, census, housing, and police records to find out everything he could about the incident and the people involved. Ultimately, he met the defendant for lunch. In a recent magazine piece, titled “The Death of ‘Shorty,’” Katz combines his observations about this experience with his deep knowledge of U.S. urban, social, and political history to tell “the story of the trial, what it meant for [him], and what it signifies about marginalization, social isolation, and indifference in American cities.”You can read the full article here.